It's no secret 'Mean Streets' made a star of actor Robert De Niro, whose brash, free-wheeling portrayal of an irresponsible, small-time hood earned him a couple of notable critic's awards. More importantly, this slice-of-life tale of New York's Little Italy and the aspiring wiseguys who roamed the neighborhood also made a star of director Martin Scorsese, putting the young filmmaker on the cinematic map and paving the way for a tidal wave of artistic, visceral pictures that both dazzled audiences and advanced the medium. 'GoodFellas' and 'Casino' never could have been made - never would have succeeded so wildly - had it not been for 'Mean Streets,' their gritty, low-budget cousin, which coined the Scorsese style and waded into the waters of a culture that heretofore had never been depicted with such unflinching realism and keen perception.
In many ways, this is Scorsese's story. If he didn't live what's up there on the screen, he witnessed it; maybe not as a cohesive narrative, but in bits and pieces throughout his formative years. And just as a writer writes what he knows, Scorsese filmed it, and though the final product is far from a masterpiece, it's nevertheless a searing, deeply personal study of ambition, guilt, and bravado, as well as a stunning and auspicious piece of moviemaking.
'Mean Streets' unfolds in a leisurely fashion, meandering along as it charts the day-to-day existence of a group of good friends. We see the bluster and boasting, boozing and brawling, and bonding and brotherhood that distinguishes the Italian-American way of life. And we see the sober ties of duty and honor that guide their destinies. These cronies are glorified errand boys, collecting fees and roughing up delinquent debtors, but they aspire to a lofty position within the all-important family, a goal that can be instantly and devastatingly quashed by one small misstep.
Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is the focus of the story, a young man whose deep religious feelings inspire guilt, as he performs deeds and follows codes that go against the way of God. His relationship with Teresa (Amy Robinson), a feisty Jewish girl, engenders gentle yet firm consternation from his powerful uncle, as does his friendship with and protection of Johnny Boy (De Niro), an often hapless, self-indulgent screw-up who has a pending debt of his own to settle - and he's missed a critical payment. As the deadline for the next installment looms, Charlie tries to crack Johnny Boy's stubborn veneer and help him avoid the family's very serious wrath, even as issues in his own life come to a critical juncture.
'Mean Streets' is low-budget moviemaking at its best, with real locations and no-frills artistry providing true grit to a down-and-dirty story. Plot plays second fiddle to the development of characters and depiction of a unique way of life, yet the script, co-written by Scorsese and Mardik Martin ('Raging Bull') paints a rich portrait filled with nuances and peppered with memorable episodes and exchanges. This is still most definitely the work of a young director trying to find his voice; rough edges abound, but they suit the material and cinematic style, and wind up enhancing the finished product. And even at a tender age, Scorsese possesses enviable command of his camera, favoring lengthy, fluid follow shots whenever he can finagle them. Though his talent would grow by leaps and bounds in the years that followed, the seeds of greatness are on full display here.
Keitel brings quiet strength and deceptive complexity to Charlie, a man pulled in different directions by opposing forces. His sober calm offsets the outspoken passion of Robinson and De Niro's unbridled wildness well. Nobody plays a punk like De Niro, and his cocky grin, mischievous glint, and arrogant strut make his skinny frame seem more imposing. So many undercurrents coarse through him, it's tough to concentrate on anyone else while he's on screen. Like Scorsese, De Niro's talent here is raw and unrefined, but the magic is unmistakable, and it's easy to see why his career took off after this picture.
'Mean Streets' is one of those films that grows in stature with each subsequent viewing, as its subtleties wield more impact and achieve a heightened degree of resonance. It's notable not only for its genuine artistic merits, but also as a deeply personal work for its director, and for marking the first of several fruitful and exciting pairings between Scorsese and De Niro that would yield some of the greatest movies of our time. 'Mean Streets' may only have been Scorsese's third feature film, but with quiet confidence and grace it shows us where the director comes from and also where he's going.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Mean Streets' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. The BD-25 single-layer disc houses a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video transfer and a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 soundtrack. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no promos or previews precede it.
'Mean Streets' was not a big-budget movie, but this high-quality 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Warner often makes it look like a million bucks. With plenty of low and natural light shots and full sequences bathed in a deep red glow, 'Mean Streets' poses many challenges visually, but this solid effort meets almost every one. Hardly a nick or mark litters the pristine print, and a fine grain structure preserves the picture's film-like feel. Some scenes possess more texture and grittiness than others, but the discrepancies aren't severe enough to seem jarring. Several sequences are almost startlingly crisp and clear, with excellent contrast and beautiful color balance, while others look a bit faded, but the overall effect is one of realism. Whether capturing the characters roaming the streets late at night, brawling in basement bars, or engaging in heated confrontations in cramped stairwells, Scorsese's camera puts us in the thick of the action, and this transfer never breaks the spell.
Black levels are strong and inky, and though crush occasionally creeps in, shadow delineation is surprisingly good. Fleshtones remain stable and true throughout, while close-ups exhibit pleasing details. The color palette tends to be a tad bland, yet accents provide morsels of vibrancy that punch up the image in unexpected ways. Background elements err toward the fuzzy side, one of the few areas where this transfer is lacking.
No banding, edge enhancement, or other digital problems afflict this presentation. Noise is absent, too; quite an achievement, considering the number of nocturnal scenes in the movie. This is by far the best 'Mean Streets' has ever looked on home video, a fact that should delight Scorsese's legion of devoted fans.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track serves up surprisingly well-modulated sound that often has the feel of a multi-channel mix. Fidelity is quite good, thanks to a wide dynamic scale that embraces the full spectrum of treble and bass. Accents, such as gunfire, screeching tires, and shattering glass, all come across cleanly, and subtle nuances don't get lost. The soundtrack of '60s pop, rock, soul, and opera selections is especially impressive, as all the various forms of music are aptly reproduced for maximum effect.
Dialogue is generally clear and comprehendible, although some mumbling and over-exuberance occasionally obscure isolated phrases.Distortion is never an issue, however, and no age-related defects (remember, this is an almost 40-year-old film!) disrupt the smoothness of this impressive track.
Just a couple of supplements round out the disc. What's included is worthwhie, but it's a shame there's not more material to peruse.
Without 'Mean Streets,' the Martin Scorsese we know and love today would not exist. It's a seminal film for him, and almost 40 years after it first premiered, it still resonates in the way it depicts relationships, ethnicity, traditions, and the maturation process. With breakout performances by Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, this slice-of-life drama lays the groundwork for Scorsese's greatest triumphs, and stands on its own as a first-rate work. Warner's Blu-ray presentation features excellent video and audio transfers, but not enough supplements to fully sate our appetite or fully examine this textured film. Still, this is a disc that belongs in the collection of anyone who appreciates fine moviemaking and searing portraits of people, cultures, and environments. Recommended.